Calling a narrative a story implies a termination point, an ending, happy or otherwise. The Story of Film, Mark Cousins’ fifteen-part chronicle of the cinema, has been a reliable highlight of the otherwise drossy Saturday night television schedules. But what kind of a story is the series telling? So far, it’s been a celebration, a history, an incitement to investigate cinema’s more obscure corners. The Story of Film arrives on the small screen towards the end of a year in which I’ve been writing weekly reviews of new releases for the SRB website. Attending the cinema, week in, week out, can be a melancholic rite for a fan of film, the films so often not being worth the time. If Cousins’ concludes film’s story in 2011, might his tale not end as an indictment of the cinema, as a coroner’s report even?
Cinema is a vampiric art. It borrows heavily from literature, the visual arts and the theatre, as well as cannibalising its own past. The cinema is over 115 years old; one would have thought it would by now be confident enough to start telling stories of its own, instead of stealing (I do not use the preferred term of ‘adapting’) plots from novels. This year alone the local multiplex has served up Barney’s Version, Brighton Rock, Never Let Me Go, True Grit, Norwegian Wood, Submarine, The Eagle, My Dog Tulip, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two, Mr Popper’s Penguins, One Day, Powder, Jane Eyre, I Don’t Know How She Does It, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Everything Must Go, We Need To Talk About Kevin, The Help, Straw Dogs, The Rum Diary, Wuthering Heights, Breaking Dawn, Resistance, Sher-lock Holmes 2, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – all of them taken from books, many with the built-in name recognition studios reckon will tempt punters into paying to see. The list, incidentally, does not include comic book adaptations, plays, remakes or big screen versions of television shows.
Perhaps one could accept the cinema’s piratical nature somewhat more willingly if it had the good grace to admit how often it is simply derivative of other art forms, novels in particular. The writer Daniel Woodrell may feel the same. Woodrell is the author of Winter’s Bone which was turned into a creditable movie, Academy Award-nominated in January of this year. Woodrell complained that amidst all the Oscar-generated praise for the movie, ‘the book was completely left out of the awards and benedictions’. The same could be said of True Grit, which was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar at the start of 2011. The Coen Brothers were congratulated on turning in another accomplished script. Yet not only is the plot lifted wholesale from Charles Portis’ novel, the film’s odd, Bible-flavoured language was drawn from the same source. You got the impression, reading the press, that the Coens themselves conceived the whole enterprise. If there was discussion of an earlier well-of-inspiration, it was of 1969’s stodgy John Wayne-starring first-go at Portis’ book.
Even Cousins’ partakes of this tendency to give undue credit to filmmakers. In the episode of The Story of Film dedicated to what we might call American cinema’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls-heyday, Cousin praises The Graduate. He interviewed its screenwriter Buck Henry who gave an insight into how one scene was made to work cinematically through the turning on and off of a light, the contrast giving the scene a rhythm it previously lacked. Interesting to learn, but what you don’t realise about The Graduate unless you’ve read Charles Webb’s source novel is the extraordinary degree to which the speech from the film is taken wholesale from the book. Practically all the famous dialogue from Mike Nichol’s adaptation (excepting the ‘plastics’ line) comes from Webb’s novel, which reads like a script in parts.
Think about it this way. Imagine an author ‘adapted’ a film into a novel. He or she would not be praised. If anything, the move would provoke puzzlement, a suspicion possibly it was done for money. There is a word for such transfers and it is ‘novelisation’; on the whole, authors do not proudly feature novelisations on their CVs. The only author of note whom I can think of who has written one in recent years is Dave Eggers, who turned his own script for Where The Wild Things Are into a long-form piece of prose fiction (although, of course, the script itself was based on Maurice Sendak’s picture book for children). The Wild Things is not regarded as Egger’s best work. Equally, theatrical adaptations of films are not taken especially seriously by critics. The proposed adaptation of The Ladykillers inspired a magnificently disapproving response by Michael Billington on the Today show.
There exists this notion that when a book is turned into a film, it’s a promotion somehow, or a vindication. This despite the fact the cinema is temperamentally unsuited to capturing a fair range of the complexities that make for a decently written novel. For a start, films are rarely long enough to do justice to the sweep of book. The last – and first – time Hollywood attempted to entirely transform a book into a movie took place in 1924 when Erich von Stroheim filmed every page of Frank Norris’s McTeague. The result, Greed, was over ten hours long, until the studio took it back from von Stroheim and hacked it down to two hours, their cuts doing comparable damage to the trajectory of the director’s career.
Since then, the best one can hope of a filmed version of a novel is a decent digest. Take this summer’s version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It was an enjoyable condensation of le Carré’s masterpiece. I gave it a positive review, but even as I did, I was aware I was judging Tinker Tailor relative to the quality of other films, not to the le Carrè novel or the acclaimed 1979 BBC adaptation, in the light of which the multiplex version was a simplification, necessarily, but a simplification nonetheless.
The Alec Guinness-starring TV series required five hours to get close to capturing the original’s knotty plot. There is a sense now that television rather than cinema is the place to go to for complex, adult drama. For example, the most acclaimed novel of the past decade, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, is set to be turned not into a movie but into an HBO series. HBO, famously, spearheaded the transformation of Ameri-can TV which, it’s almost a truism to say, is currently enjoying a golden age comparable to the one American cinema enjoyed in the very late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. It is not that satisfying complex or mature films aren’t made anymore. The best film I’ve seen this year is A Separation, an Iranian film about a divorce that grows into a subtle and satisfying insight into Iran’s class system. One must also concede there is no one, as Cousin put it, ‘opening out the form’ televisually in the same way Scorsese did for the cinema in the first phase of his career. Television is often staid visually, due to constrained budgets and swift shooting schedules. Where film has fallen behind television is in thematic richness. I’ve spent 2011 watching, for the first time, every episode of The Sopranos, and the hype is true. The Sopranos is a significant achievement by any standards, a drama that builds, deepens and sustains its various plots and themes over 80 hours. Matthew Weiner, who was a producer and writer on The Sopranos, went on to create Mad Men, and it is not an extravagant claim to say there are no screenwriters in Hollywood (and in the UK too) who can currently match him.
Set next to an episode of Mad Men, a tony piece of chattering-classes bait like The Ides of March looks soft around the edges. My point isn’t that films aren’t as good as books or television. What I want to argue, as someone who adores films, and whose love has been stoked by Cousin’s series, is that cinema is failing; certainly that movies made for adults in the West are increasingly childish, and that critics in part abet this process by marking films relative to each other. We condescend to them. We give them a free pass. We bathe in the light, we take the quick pay-off of a dose of glamour. It’s the only way I can explain the corona of praise that glowed around empty spectacles like Drive.
I’ve been galled by the easy ride Ameri-can so-called indie films receive from critics. Although ‘indie’ is meant to refer to the mode of production – i.e. made outside the studio system – it has come to resemble a genre of its own. The indie film as it is currently constituted – examples from 2011 include Beginners or Jack Goes Boating – is irritatingly quirky, affects to have a grittiness missing from the bigger-budgeted while possessing a mile-wide sentimental streak, and is where biggish-name actors truffle for Oscars in roles that are nominally less sympathetic than the ones they usually take home a pay cheque from.
Jean Cocteau, a truly visionary filmmaker as well as a novelist and poet, once wrote that ‘the cinema will only become art when its raw materials are as cheap as paper and pencil’. While the money-men who control what is made and seen in the commercial context of western cinema are in charge, cinema cannot progress as an art form. Innovation, the benchmark by which Mark Cousin judges a film worthy of discussion in his Story of Film, will come to a halt. Perhaps filmmakers and critics should take this moment to pause and reflect upon what a twenty-first century cinema should do, what it should be about. As television and the novel handle the classic realist text to better effect than film, perhaps the next wave of auteurs need to return to the essence of cinema, the visual. In the play of its light, Cousin finds a spiritual quality exemplified by filmmakers of the last mid-century like Robert Bresson and Yasujir-o Ozu. The next part in the story of ﬁlm may grow from a fruitful engagement with its earlier chapters. Otherwise it risks becoming a zombie art form.